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After pressure from advocates, Comcast boosts internet speed for low-income users

Group of protestors holding signs outside the Comcast Center in Philadelphia, PA.
Protesters attempted to deliver a petition to Comcast for free internet for Philadelphia school district students learning virtually on Aug. 3, 2020.
Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

As students in Philadelphia near a full year of virtual learning, Comcast is doubling the speed of its “Internet Essentials” program, which connects low-income families to the web at a discounted rate.

For households nationally that subscribe to the program, internet speed will double from 25 megabits per second (mbps) to 50. Costs will remain the same at $10 a month. Upload speeds will also raise from 3 mbps to 5. Experts say the upload speed can often be the limiting factor for online school, especially if there is more than one person in a household is trying to log on.

Comcast said the update builds on its “longstanding commitment to advancing digital equity, closing the digital divide, and addressing both digital literacy and the homework gap.”

Since the pandemic began, the Philadelphia-based company has established 33 spaces in community centers across the city where students can receive free Wi-Fi for virtual learning. It also said it has invested $40 million dollars in digital literacy programs, with new digital equity grants announced Tuesday.

In an interview, Dalila Wilson-Scott, Comcast’s executive vice president and chief diversity officer, said increasing connectivity is one of the ways it can have “the most impact on Philadelphia communities.”

The company’s announcement comes amid calls by city officials and community advocates to do more for Philadelphia school children during a school year turned upside down by COVID-19. A few weeks ago, Comcast faced criticism for its Internet Essentials program by ex-employee Chase Roper, whose inside account went viral on Twitter.

He wrote that the program didn’t offer fast enough internet “for children to do their live ‘Zoom’ online class work.”

For Stefanie Marrero, a stay-at-home mom from Frankford, that rings true. Her family has had major Wi-Fi issues using Internet Essentials since the start of the pandemic when her four children began virtual school from home.

Marrero believes Comcast’s plan to boost speeds will provide a huge relief.

“There’s always one kid getting kicked off Wi-Fi, or the internet is dropping for hours on end. So I’m stuck using my phone, calling Comcast every other day,” she said.

According to Marrero, her kids get marked absent if they drop out of class because of Wi-Fi problems. “I don’t think it’s fair to the children who are trying to do their work and the internet is just not able to keep up with everything.”

She says her son John, a 9th grader at Kensington CAPA, is often awake until midnight, trying to finish his school work as the Wi-Fi drops in and out.

She still wonders why the increase in internet speed didn’t come sooner. “Why would Comcast wait until now, February, to finally increase the speed, knowing that people are going to be working from home and there would be tons of more children doing virtual school?”

Devren Washington, an organizer with the Movement Alliance Project (MAP), has been part of the coalition pushing Comcast to provide low-income students with better internet access.

“I wasn’t expecting this today,” said Washington. “This is a crucial step in the right direction, there are so many kids who don’t have other options for the internet.”

Washington said his group has been hearing an increased number of reports about students having difficulty connecting to online school.

The complaints about internet access led MAP to organize rallies with concerned community members, educators, students, and parents outside Comcast’s Center City headquarters.

Washington said internet access has historically been disproportionately low for people of color in the city, a problem made worse by the virtual needs of the pandemic.

‘De facto redlining’

This is the sixth speed increase in 10 years for Internet Essentials. Sascha Meinrath, a telecommunications professor at Penn State University, said this increase was crucial because “25 mbps was inadequate for any family with more than one child in virtual school.”

That speed is the bottom threshold for the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of broadband. Meinrath, who has studied the issue for years and specifically its impact on rural Pa., found in 2019 that median speeds for most of the state fall below that mark.

Meinrath, too, said the issue is all about social justice.

“The digital divide is de facto redlining,” Meinrath said.

In a press release responding to Comcast’s decision, Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym offered thanks to those who have engaged in this battle for months.

Gym said the moves from Comcast should only be a start.

“Poverty must never be a barrier to learning. We will continue to push Comcast to ensure that ‘Internet Essentials’ is as reliable and fast as any commercial internet service and to end barriers to accessing the internet in every neighborhood in Philadelphia.”

MAP’s Washington noted that the larger conversation about access to the internet needs to stretch beyond focusing on students, noting the large portion of Philadelphia adults who lack reliable broadband.

“The only path forward is for the FCC, for Congress, and even the president, to say that internet access, especially amid a pandemic, is a human right.”

Comcast’s updates to Internet Essentials are set to go into effect on March 1.

Neena Hagen of Chalkbeat Philadelphia contributed reporting.

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